Israel and Hamas are making progress towards a deal that aims to bring about a ceasefire and free hostages held in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, according to two officials with direct knowledge of the talks, as key meetings continued between the sides in the Egyptian capital on Tuesday.
Talks are moving forward even after Israel intensified its offensive in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.
A brazen Israeli hostage rescue mission freed two captives held in the town along the Egyptian border, a raid that killed at least 74 Palestinians, according to local health officials, and left a trail of destruction.
A deal would give people in Gaza a desperately needed respite from the war, now in its fifth month, and offer freedom for at least some of the 100 people still held captive in Gaza.
With the war grinding on, efforts mediated by Qatar, the US and Egypt to bring about a deal have been hampered by the starkly disparate positions of Hamas and Israel.
Israel has made destroying Hamas’s governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages the main goals of its war, which was launched after thousands of militants rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 people captive, including women and children, according to Israeli authorities.
Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from destroyed communities.
The war has wrought unimaginable destruction in the Gaza Strip, with some 28,000 people killed, more than 70% of them women and minors, according to local health officials.
Vast swathes of the territory have been flattened by Israel’s offensive, around 80% of the population has been displaced, and a humanitarian catastrophe has pushed more than a quarter of Palestinians in Gaza towards starvation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on until “total victory”, and has insisted that strong military pressure will secure the hostages’ freedom – an idea his allies say was bolstered by the successful rescue mission.
But the rescued hostages, Fernando Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, were only the second and third captives to be freed by the military since the war erupted.
Other Israeli officials have said only a deal can bring about the release of so many hostages.
A deal in late November brought about a brief truce in exchange for the release of about 100 hostages. Some 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel were also freed as part of the deal.
Israel says about 30 captives are believed to have died or been killed while in captivity, with their bodies still in Gaza. Three hostages were killed erroneously by Israeli forces in December and one female Israeli soldier was freed in a rescue mission in the early weeks of the war.
On Tuesday, a senior Egyptian official said mediators have achieved what he described as “relatively significant” progress in the negotiations between Israel and Hamas ahead of a scheduled meeting in Cairo of representatives from Qatar, the US and Israel.
Israeli media reported that the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, was in Cairo.
The Egyptian official said the meeting will focus on “crafting a final draft” of a six-week ceasefire deal, with guarantees that the parties would continue negotiations toward a permanent ceasefire.
A Western diplomat in the Egyptian capital also said a six-week deal is on the table but warned that more work is still needed to reach an agreement.
He said Tuesday’s meeting will be crucial in bridging the remaining gaps to get the two sides to agree on a six-week truce and embark on talks for a final ceasefire deal.
While the officials did not disclose the precise details of the emerging deal, the sides have been discussing varying proposals for weeks.
Israel has proposed a two-month ceasefire in which hostages would be freed in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and top Hamas leaders in Gaza would be allowed to relocate to other countries.
Hamas has rejected those terms.
It laid out a three-phase plan of 45 days each in which the hostages would be released in stages, Israel would free hundreds of imprisoned Palestinians, including senior militants, and the war would be wound down with Israel withdrawing its troops.
That was viewed as a non-starter by Israel, which wants to topple Hamas before ending the war.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated during a visit to the region last week that there is hope the talks might lead to a deal, and on Monday President Joe Biden also signalled they are heading closer to fruition.
“The key elements of the deal are on the table,” Mr Biden said alongside visiting Jordanian King Abdullah II, adding: “There are gaps that remain.”
He said the US will do “everything possible” to make an agreement happen.
The signs of progress came despite ongoing fighting.
Palestinians were still counting the dead after Israel’s hostage rescue mission, with the death toll climbing to 74 on Tuesday.
Residents and displaced Palestinians in Gaza were searching through the rubble from Israeli air strikes that provided cover for the Israeli forces.
While concerns have grown over Rafah because it is sheltering such a massive influx of Palestinians, fighting was continuing throughout the Gaza Strip, with the Israeli military saying troops were battling militants in Gaza’s second largest city, Khan Younis, and in central Gaza.
It said on Tuesday that three soldiers had been killed in combat, raising the death toll among troops since the Gaza ground operation began in late October to 232.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said the bodies of 133 people killed in Israeli strikes were taken to hospitals over the past day.
The fatalities took the death toll in Gaza to 28,473 since the war began, according to the ministry, which said more than 68,000 people have been wounded.